E. E. “Doc” Smith is a mixed bag for me. I really disliked Triplanetary, despite many of my peers suggesting it. I think of the Lensman series, First Lensman might be my next attempt into that space. However, the Skylark series was Smith’s other huge series.
And it is very approachable.
The Skylark of Space, the first book in this series, is about two scientists whose brilliance is tested when one of them, the heroic Richard Seaton, discovers a way to transform copper into energy. It’s fantastical, but the amount of energy provided is to a degree that allows space travel and augmented weaponry. Of course, the evil Marc DuQuesne can’t allow Richard to have it.
The tagline for the book reads, “it started in earth, it ended in space”. This is a good tease for what is within. The spaceship Seaton designs, the titular Skylark, is able to travel incredible speeds pushing relativity to points dreamed impossible. Though the battle between Seaton and DuQuesne escalates to a scale beyond simple battles over property rights. It soon becomes cosmic. The story leaps from the Earth to a black hole (which they call a “dead star”) and then to several alien worlds. Each alien world is unique and interesting, though the last society they interact with is by far the most interested. It also seems to have some similarities to Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom society.
It comes off as an elementary school book report when you start talking about the two main characters, protagonist and antagonist, as if there were some opposing morality in their motivations. In this case, that doesn’t really apply. Both Richard Seaton and Marc DuQuesne have moralities that justify themselves by their ends. “The ends justify the means”, for lack of a better phrase. However, DuQuesne steps past a line of criminality that Seaton never does, going into both thievery and murder. Seaton only goes as far as deceiving the US Government about what he’s discovered and some minor violence to protect it.
There’s never a doubt in the story about which character is the hero and which is the villain. There’s something refreshing about that kind of writing, given the “shades of gray” characterization of modern stories. Your heroes can be human without also being evil, as Smith shows us. Seaton isn’t completely perfect, either. He’s the manly scientist character that was popular back then, but so is DuQuesne. They almost seem cut from the same cloth. At one point, DuQuesne is given honors similar to the honors bestowed upon the other four passengers of the Skylark, though he is still considered a “captive”.
If I had one complaint it was the pacing. In one chapter you’ll be reading about how the crew of one ship gets stuck next to a “dead star”, but then the next chapter has that immediately resolved with the other ship finding them and rescuing them. It’s paced quickly, which can be a hard sell at times. More often than not, though, it feels like a good pace for the story.
I recommend this book for fans of space opera. It won’t disappoint, though it does feel dated at points. That just added to its charm for me, though.
You may like some of my other reviews:
You may also like some of my other work: